Sail-powered barge Ceres to bring bounty downriver

The Vermont Sail Freight Project’s Ceres

For several hundred years, produce and goods moved up and down the Hudson on sloops: a trade that spawned the development of cities and was the economic lifeline of upstate New York. That tradition will be revisited this month with the arrival of Ceres, a sail-powered barge, at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. Produce, preserves and other handcrafted artisan products from farms in the Champlain Valley and New York’s North Country will be for sale. Musicians will play as the crew of four will talk with locals on the viability and benefits of transporting food by sail power, before they depart for their next ports, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and Beacon.

With its boxlike plywood hull, Ceres doesn’t have the charisma of Clearwater. But the hand-built craft might prove to be galvanizing, in its mission to deliver produce and food products from small local farms to customers in Albany, Troy, Hudson, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Beacon and lower Manhattan and Brooklyn in a climate-friendly way – i.e., without producing carbon emissions. Conceived by Vermont farmer Erik Andrus, the Vermont Sail Freight Project (VSFP) – as the Ceres venture is called – is one of only two sail-powered food delivery systems in the country. (The other is in Washington State; in Europe, there are several such ventures.) Ceres has already sold some of its produce, with approximately ten percent of the nearly 15-ton cargo preordered through the online purchasing site Good Eggs.

Ceres undermines the universal assumption that speed is king. The apples, pears, garlic, carrots, potatoes, winter squash, cider, syrup and honey, baby ginger, dried beans, flour, rice, herbs, preserves and handcrafted soaps stored in Ceres’ non-refrigerated hull aren’t dependent on quick delivery, said Andrus, who raises grass-fed beef and grows Japanese rice on his farm in the Champlain Valley.

While Ceres is definitely an experiment, Andrus has high ambitions for the project: nothing less than “the rebirth of working sailing craft, which accomplishes services helping people live with a lighter footprint,” as he explains. “We know this is possible because it existed for years. Water transport works. If we can find a way to separate ourselves from the preoccupation with speed, all kinds of openings for alternative approaches to satisfying human needs become viable.”

Ceres was conceived as a sturdy workboat on a shoestring budget. “I haven’t done a whole lot of sailing,” Andrus conceded. “I’m really interested in working sail, which is hard to fall in love with, since it’s almost vanished and you can only read about it.” Andrus’ passion was fired when he spent a summer at the Rockport Apprenticeship in Boat-Building in 1991, sailing the waters of Penobscot Bay in a Scottish herring vessel.

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